In this podcast interview, Bob Souer describes how his voice over career started and developed. He provides some useful suggestions on how to approach copy, as well as a couple of tips on how to get the most from VOICE2010 which starts in a few short days.
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Transcript of conversation with Bob Souer
Andy: Planning a journey, finding the right route, taking a step along the way can always be tricky if the person you ask for directions replies, “Ah yes, I can tell you how to get there, but you don’t start from here”. Maybe that’s just an apocryphal story, but today I’m talking with Bob Souer, professional story teller, whose blog was the first voice over website I stumbled upon, and which thankfully was a great place to start… and one which constantly leads to useful destinations. Welcome Bob, thanks for joining me.
Bob: Thank you, Andy. A delight to be with you.
Andy: You’re obviously a people person and have done some interesting things in your career apart from voice over, could you give us a little background?
Bob: Sure. My background is actually in music. I studied vocal performance – specifically opera performance – in college, and had intended to be either an opera singer or actor. But when I was in my final year of school I had an opportunity to audition for one of the coaches at the Metropolitan Opera. As I was preparing for that audition I began to investigate what exactly would happen if he liked me. I mean if he didn’t like me, obviously, I would either have to keep studying or change direction in my life. But what if he liked me? Well, what I found out was that even if he liked me I wasn’t going to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I was most likely going to have to move to Europe for 20 years or so, and build a reputation, learn the repertoire, and if I became successful enough, then I could move back to the States and make a living doing opera.
Well, I had gotten married the year before and the idea of moving my wife and I to Europe, where we know no-one, and didn’t speak most of the languages, and living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for 20 years didn’t particularly appeal. So I told my vocal coach, who had set up the audition, to cancel it, and I never looked back.
But that was an important decision, because I had spent all these years training, learning how to use my voice, and to sing, and I thought I was throwing it all away. Well, God had other ideas. A couple of years later I was offered a job working for a radio station. Kind of out of the blue. I was working in real estate at the time, a guy came walking through the door with his family – his wife and his two small kids – and as he was talking with me, he asked me if I had ever worked in radio. And I said, “No. How do you get in to radio?”. He said, “Well, my name’s Frank Dawson, and I’m the Programme Director of WKKD, over here in Aurora…” – this was in the suburbs of Chicago – “… and I’m looking for a part-time announcer. Why don’t you come and audition?”. So I initially thought he was kidding, but he asked me several times. Finally I said “OK”, I went over to the radio station. I read the copy, and the weather forecast, and the news headlines, that he asked me to read for him twice through, on a reel of tape, and I thought that was that.
Several days later he called me. It was a Friday afternoon. This was 1979. He called me and he said, “Well, Bob, we had seven people audition for this job, and five of them had radio experience”. I felt, for sure, the next thing he was going to say would be, “Sorry, I had to hire one of them”. But in fact he said, “But you were the best, and I want to hire you”.
I said, “You’re kidding?”
He said, “No. Can you come in on Monday to start training?”
I said, “Sure”. Two hours later, the Vice President of Sales for the company I was working for came in, flopped down in the chair across from my desk, and said, “Well, Bob, we’re in a recession. The President of the company has just been fired. I’ve been demoted to your position, and we have to let you go”.
So that’s how God told me I was to get out of real estate, and in to radio. I started doing commercials for the radio station, and then began to do some freelance work, working for a local video production company. And, in fact, ended up doing a lot of voice overs for that video production company. I continued to work in radio for quite a few years, but the voice over business kept growing and growing.
Andy: That’s incredible, and I love the story about your first voice over job, and how it helped you at a critical moment, but at the time wasn’t this just a one off?
Bob: Yes. That first job that I got was supposed to be just a one-time job. It was for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, in Batavia, Illinois – a high energy physics research laboratory – and it was supposed to be just one voice over job. They were actually looking for somebody to do on camera what I was doing off camera, as a voice over. Ultimately, they were happy enough with my work that they kept using me, and then the video production company also kept hiring me for other clients. And yeah, I did a lot of work, but it all started off kind of as a complete fluke. A guy called the radio station where I was working one afternoon while I was having a pity party because the General Manager had taken everybody else and the staff out to lunch, but I had to stay and work because I was on the air. It was really a flukish thing, but it turned out to be a golden opportunity and I am very, very grateful.
Incidentally, I still do voice over work for the Fermi lab, for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. So that’s 27 years now that I have been doing voice overs for them.
Andy: 27 years… So how did you start to do voice over more regularly, and what was it that made you want to do it full-time?
Bob: Well, that video production company, Video Impressions, in Aurora, Illinois, hired me over, and over, and over again for a period of about four years. Over the course of those four years I ended up working for some companies who eventually took their production in-house, and then they began to hire me, as well. So my business just expanded. I guess basically by word of mouth. In 1989 I moved to Virginia, to go to work for a network, and got an opportunity to do some freelance work for other divisions of that network – the television department, and so forth. And as a result of that, met some people that gave me opportunities to audition for – and eventually book work – for some other production houses that were there in the area in Virginia where I lived.
Then in 1994 I moved to Pittsburgh, and again got opportunities to do some freelance work. In each of those cases it was mostly word of mouth, and then in 1996 I signed with an agent, The Talent Group, in Pittsburgh, and they began to get me quite a bit of work. So I had opportunities across the years to go full time, but I was always concerned that the work wouldn’t sustain itself. I am not terribly good at marketing myself. I was always concerned that it wouldn’t continue to grow. So I always had a day job: I always worked for a radio station, or for a network, or for a group of stations, or eventually I ended up working for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as their Senior Producer for Radio.
But my voice over work continued to grow, and in the last several years grew to the point where I was working full time doing voice over work while working full time for the Billy Graham Association. It eventually got to the point where I was so busy I couldn’t keep doing both jobs, so I tendered my resignation and left the Billy Graham Association, effective the 1st May, 2009 – and I’ve been full time as a voice over talent since then, exclusively.
Andy: An important milestone, so we could say you’ve just had an important professional anniversary…
Bob: Yes, the 1st May was my departure form my life in the corporate world, and in radio, and all of that sort of thing. And also the 2nd May was my fifth blogiversary – I have been blogging about voice overs since 2005. I started on the 2nd May. So both of those were important professional anniversaries.
Andy: You describe yourself as a professional storyteller. Is this just a branding message, or how did you come up with this epithet?
Bob: The reason I call myself a professional storyteller is because my style of narration is sort of a storyteller mode. Not necessarily storyteller in the way you would think of somebody who tells children’s stories, but just somebody who narrates, or tells stories. I love telling stories, whether it’s like this in a podcast, where I am just chatting with you, or telling stories to my kids, or when I am talking with my friends or meeting someone new. I love hearing stories, and I love telling stories. So when I was working on my branding the idea of a storyteller was something that seemed to fit very well with my style, and with the way I approach things. Working with Stacey Stahl, in Creative Entertainment Management, on my redesign of my website and blog, and so forth, last year, the idea of “professional storyteller” just seemed to resonate with who I am and the kind of thing that I do. So, it’s not just a branding message, it hopefully is representative of who I really am.
Andy: James Alburger talks about the “character in the copy”, but if I understand correctly, for you the copy is a story – how does this help?
Bob: At VOICE 2007, in March 2007, I vividly remember Don LaFontaine saying, “You have to love the words”. And I do love words, and I love telling stories. So the character in the copy, and the copy as a story, I think, are really consonant ideas. The message that you are trying to tell, whether it’s seemingly boring e-learning narration about paving highways in California, or a really interesting and evocative television commercial – or what ever it is – there is always a story there. There is always somebody you are talking to. So finding that story, or finding a way to deliver that copy in a way that makes sense, that makes the story come alive is, to me, the essence of being a voice over talent.
Andy: What can a voice actor do to identify the story?
Bob: I think the story is there on the page, and it is simply a matter of reading it like you mean it. At least to me, that’s how I approach finding the story in the copy.
Andy: But what if is the copy is for a dry narration about a factory, an industrial theme, or maybe a telephone menu system – what resources can the voice artist pull upon there?
Bob: The most important thing about delivering copy as a story, I think, is to recognise that you are talking to human beings. You know, we don’t record voice overs for them to be listened to by machinery. We record voice overs so that people can hear them. If you keep in mind the person that you are talking to, who is hearing what you have to say, no matter how dry, or seemingly uninteresting the copy is – it is interesting to the person who is hearing you.
Andy: As I mentioned earlier, your blog played a pivotal role in my vo career as it introduced me to the professional vo forum, VoiceoverUniverse.com. You regularly promote others’ work on your blog, and far from detracting from your work, this is a very positive contribution. How do you see the role of the internet and social media in building a voice over business?
Bob: Well, the internet connects you to all kinds of people. It provides you with ways to research potential clients. It provides you with ways to stay in touch with old clients, as well as building relationships with new clients. I see all of that as extremely important. I think it is also easy to get caught up in the latest fad, or whatever. Just getting a Twitter account, and getting on Facebook, isn’t automatically going to generate you a whole bunch of new business. I think mostly it’s about building relationships.
Somebody commented to me once that they thought I was a terrific networker, and I said, “Well, I don’t know about that, I’m just trying to make friends”. And that’s true. The people that I work for, my clients, are people that I regard with great gratitude – not only because they pay me, but because it’s a joy working for every one of them.
Andy: The VOICE 2010 conference is almost upon us, and in addition to being a panellist you’re a veteran of previous events. As a first timer, what should I do to prepare myself?
Bob: I think the most important thing for you to do at VOICE 2010 is to concentrate on the people that you get to meet. Whether they are famous people, or just people who are working in the trenches. Concentrate on making connections with people. Don’t try to meet everybody. Just enjoy the people that you do get to meet. And maybe spend more time listening, than talking – by the way, that’s not a suggestion that you mostly talk, and don’t listen, I just mean I think that’s a generally good piece of advice for anybody.
Andy: Thank you. And finally, from your blog, and Facebook, it appears that you love to travel – are you able to record on the road – how do you manage this?
Bob: Actually, I don’t love to travel! I just end up doing it quite a bit, particularly when I was working for the Billy Graham Association I had to travel to all of the crusades, and other meetings, and events that the association put on. So I ended up travelling quite a lot, and since I’ve left the association, I have still had a fair number of times when I’ve had to travel.
How do I deal with recording on the road? Well, I take my Sennheiser 416 microphone with me when I travel. I build myself a little nest out of pillows, in one section of the room, and I do the recordings in that little nest. I also try to schedule recordings so that I can do them while I’m at my home studio as much as I can, but obviously if I am travelling and something has to be done, I get it done, and I do it as professionally as possible.
Andy: What’s the strangest location you’ve recorded from?
Bob: Once I had to do a recording in my car. I was travelling. Something had to be done. I was able to use my phone to upload the audio, and I set up things in the car so that I had a laptop sitting next to me to record with, and read the copy off of my phone. Now, that’s probably the strangest thing I’ve had to do.
Andy: Well Bob, thank you for joining me today, it’s been a pleasure to learn a little more about you.
Bob: Thank you, Andy. I’ve enjoyed it enormously.